That the Pacific Theatre of World War II was a harsh testing ground for both men and materiel is certainly an understatement. The United States and Imperial Japanese forces both fielded a variety of large weapons, but in many cases the outcome of a particular action would simply come down to the arms toted by the average foot soldier.
Though of short duration, Tarawa was the first battle in America's Central Pacific campaign. Waged on the ground primarily by Japanese infantry and U.S. Marines, the battle rifles carried by the opposing forces couldn't have been more different. On the U.S. side the main longarm was the semiautomatic M1 Garand, and on the Japanese, turnbolts whose basic technology was at least half a century old. Chronology aside, though, both were top-notch examples of their respective types.
Code-named "Operation Galvanic," the three-day Battle of Tarawa was the first amphibious landing to be vigorously opposed by the Japanese Imperial forces. The battle took place on Betio, the largest island in the Tarawa Atoll, and was important in that it was cutting off communications to the Marshall Islands, which were needed as a base from which to launch an assault on the Marianas. Betio was defended by 14 coastal defense guns and some 40 artillery pieces strategically placed around the island.
On November 20, following a heavy naval bombardment, members of the 2nd Marine Division and U.S. Army 27th Infantry Division began their attack and met considerable Japanese resistance. Difficulty with landing craft and problems disembarking tanks and other equipment caused a casualty rate of 1,500 out of the 5,000 Marines who landed the first day.
Ultimately, the battle, though short-lived, turned into a slugfest. But on November 21, Marines were in control of the western portion of the island and began to gain the upper hand. Despite suicidal Japanese counterattacks, the island was secured by November 23. American casualties amounted to 1,009 killed and 2,101 wounded along with 687 naval personnel who were killed when the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay was sunk by a Japanese submarine on November 24. The Japanese lost 4,690 killed with only 17 soldiers and 129 laborers taken prisoner.
Battle Implement Supreme
Hyperbolically, but certainly not incorrectly, termed by Gen. George S. Patton as "the greatest battle implement ever devised," the M1 was a truly wonderful arm. But like most things worthwhile, it was not an overnight development. Prior to the M1's emergence, the United States had one of the best military rifles extant — the 1903 Springfield. But far-thinking ordnance officials wanted something better, and experiments on some sort of self-loader were begun soon after the Great War.
The .30-caliber Garand was adopted by the United States in 1936 to replace the bolt-action '03. It was designed by John Cantius Garand (pronounced, according to his friend Julian Hatcher, "Gerrend"), an eccentric French-Canadian firearms genius who was known to flood the living room of his house in the winter so he could go ice skating. Leaving school at the age of 12, Garand began working in a textile mill, where he was eventually made a machinist.
Moving to Providence, Rhode Island, he was hired by a tool factory. Always interested in guns and shooting, Garand started to lean more and more in the direction of firearms design and, during World War I, submitted the plans for a light machine gun. Though not adopted, the invention brought him to the attention of the government, and he was given a job as consulting engineer at Springfield Armory. It was there that he was presented with the challenge of coming up with a practical semiautomatic battle rifle. Garand labored at his task for the U.S. Army Ordnance Department for some 15 years before he devised an action that was strong enough to handle the formidable .30-06 cartridge — which develops some 50,000 psi of chamber pressure.
The M1 in Operation
Today the system seems almost elementary, but when it first appeared, Garand's design was considered a marvel. Using a sheet metal en-bloc clip as part of the feeding system, the rifle functioned as follows:
The bolt handle was pulled to the rear where the action was held open by the follower. A clip of ammo was pressed down into the magazine and the bolt allowed to move forward where it stripped off and chambered a round. When the trigger was pulled and the round discharged, gases were tapped off through a gas port in the forward bottom part of the bore. These gases forced the operating rod backward, compressing the operating rod spring and opening the bolt. As the bolt opened, it extracted and ejected the spent cartridge and cocked the hammer.
Relaxation of the operating rod spring now forced the bolt forward, where it stripped off and chambered the next round. When all eight shots had been expended, the clip was forcibly ejected from the action and the bolt remained open, ready for insertion of the next clip. It is said that Japanese and German soldiers would listen for the telltale ping of the clip being ejected, realizing they had the advantage of a second or two when the Yank would be loading his piece and unable to return fire.
Part of the magic of the rifle resided in its sturdy, responsive rotating bolt — a concept that had been inspired in pre-World War I experiments by the French, Italian and Swiss ordnance bureaus. The system, as devised by Garand, proved to be so effective that it was used again in the selective-fire M14 rifle that officially replaced the M1 in 1957.
If it was reasonably well maintained, the M1 worked almost flawlessly in the adverse conditions of both the European and Pacific Theatres (and later in the equally challenging cold climate of the Korean War). You could shoot a Garand in inclement weather, and it was easy to clean and strip if it got muddy or dirty.
The M1 safety is a sturdy, pierced piece of sheet steel located at the front of the triggerguard. Pushed to the rear, the gun is on Safe. When the lever is flicked forward by the back of the trigger finger, the gun is ready to fire.
For a battle rifle, the rear sight setup is pretty sophisticated, with a double knurled-knob arrangement that adjusts the peep aperture for elevation and windage. Sights went through various configurations and markings, the most noticeable difference being on the windage knob. Early models have flush nut attachments, later ones have locking bars. Post-war models have no locking bar. The front sight is a sturdy blade, flanked by a pair of stout bolsters.
The buttplate has a compartment for oil, grease and pull-through containers and one of a couple types of combination tools secreted behind the metal buttplate. It is accessible via a hinged, spring-latched, fingernail-busting trapdoor (early guns do not have this feature).
Of course, like any self-respecting military rifle, the M1 is set up to be fitted with a bayonet. While the gun can accommodate the standard U.S. Model 1905 blade, more up-to-date versions of the blade were offered, beginning with a Model 1905 Type 2, which has similar dimensions to the original (16-inch blade) but which is Parkerized and sports ribbed plastic grips rather than walnut panels. These first appeared in late 1941. There are also wartime variants of the 1905 Type 2 with shorter 10-inch blades and, finally, the M5/M5A1 which came out after World War II.
While not exactly a lightweight (9½ pounds unloaded), the Garand balances extremely well, and using either the old-style Model 1907 leather sling or the later web strap, it can be carried for extended periods with relative comfort. It shoulders nicely, and recoil, even with standard 150-grain M2 ball, is not prohibitive.
Initially produced by Springfield, demand for the M1 during World War II increased to such a point that it was necessary to contract with Winchester for additional rifles. By war's end, some four million Garands had been produced.
The M1 performed yeoman service during the Korean War as well. Other makers, such as International Harvester and Harrington and Richardson, were brought in to make M1s during that later period, swelling total production numbers to over six million units.
Many thousands were sent overseas to friendly nations and are still being seen in combat in some parts of the world. It is one of the great firearms success stories.
The M1 loads from an eight-round en bloc clip that ejects on the last shot.
The Type 99 charges from a conventional Mauser-type five-round stripper clip.
Power boost: The 7.7 cartridge of the Type 99 (right) is a bit less potent than the 30-06 (left) of the M1.
The fully adjustable rear aperture sight of the M1 works well in conjunction with the protected front blade (right).
The Type 99's ladder-style rear sight incorporates aircraft stadia. The front sight is an inverted-V, tapered blade (right).
M1 cleaning gear is stowed in a spring-latched trapdoor in the buttplate.
In keeping with Imperial Japan's predilection for cold steel, the Type 99 employs the 16-inch Type 30 bayonet.
The author's M1 functioned flawlessly during his range session. Rested 100-yard groups (inset) ran between three and 3½ inches. The ammo? Federal 150-grain Nosler Partition.
Rested groups with the Type 99 — using Norma 180-grain SP ammo — were a bit larger on average than those of the M1.
Rifle of the Rising Sun
When one thinks of some of the best bolt-action battle rifles ever, the names that come to mind are Mauser, Springfield and Enfield. Rarely is the "Arisaka" considered — but it's possibly the best of the lot. Perhaps the great number of them that flowed back into the U.S. as souvenirs, coupled with the fact that the finish on many of the later production guns was a tad on the rough side, has led to their being held in low regard. Nothing could be more wrongheaded.
Actually, the Type 99 Infantry Rifle wasn't the first of the batch. Like the SMLE and Kar 98, the 99 has an illustrious antecedent, the Type 38, with which it shares many features.
The Type 38
The Type 38 was adopted in 1905 and was actually an improvement of an earlier T30 that first appeared in 1897. It received its moniker "Arisaka" after the head of the commission for its development, Col. Nariaki Arisaka.
The actual title of the gun "Type 38" came from the fact that it was adopted in the 38th year of the reign of the Meiji Emperor. It's basically a variant of the Model 1898 Mauser action and employs that mechanism's front-locking lugs and positive one-piece collar-mounted extractor. The gun incorporates a five-round box magazine with removable floorplate and excellent gas release setup effected, in part, by the completely enclosed bolt rear. Unlike the Mauser, the Arisaka bolt cocks on closing — a feature felt by many experts to be advantageous in a military arm, as it allows for rapid manipulation of the bolt and easier extraction.
Chambered for an efficient rimless 6.5mm cartridge, the Type 38 can be fitted with the earlier Type 30 bayonet and has such amenities as a bolt dustcover (which can be removed if one wants to operate his rifle a little more quietly) and an excellent safety mechanism that involves a large knurled knob on the rear of the bolt. Putting the rifle on Safe, is simply a matter of pushing in on the knob and turning it to the right. This effectively blocks the firing pin from moving forward. With a little practice, it can be put on and off even more quickly than that of the Mauser.
The Arisaka's extractor is actually an improvement over the Mauser's in that it does not employ an ejector spring and the slot does not extend all the way to the left locking lug. This means that if there is a case failure, gas cannot escape via that route.
Pressure tests have been conducted and it has been found that the Type 38 and later Type 99 were the strongest military bolt actions ever, with the former being practically indestructible and the latter being not far behind.
Type 38 rifles are on the longish side, as are most early military bolt actions, but it's well balanced and easy to handle.
In all, some 10 million Type 38s were manufactured from 1905 to the end of World War II, and it was unquestionably Japan's most widely used arm. But as war clouds gathered, it was decided that some changes were probably in order.
Thus in 1939, the Type 99 was born. While its action is basically a simplified version of that of the Type 38, it has some interesting features of its own. To begin with, the caliber was upped from 6.5mm to 7.7mm. The 7.7x58 is similar to the .303 British round, though rimless, which was found to better handle incendiary, armor-piercing and tracer bullets. Firing a 175-grain bullet, generating some 42,000 psi pressure, it was originally adopted in a semi-rimmed version for machine gun use. It was felt that chambering a 7.7 in rifles would give them greater effectiveness than the 6.5.
Like its predecessor, early Type 99s are beautifully made, with fit and finish to near-commercial quality. Guns produced toward the end of World War II show a considerable decline in finish and the elimination of some unnecessary parts (like the substitution of a wooden buttplate for a metal one), but the gun proved every bit as serviceable as earlier versions. The Type 99 is one of the first military longarms to have a chrome-lined bore — an excellent feature when you're using corrosive ammo in the inhospitable climate of the Pacific.
The Type 99 was fitted with the 16-inch-bladed Type 30 bayonet. Amenities on most guns included a wire fold-down monopod for long-range rested shooting and an unusual ladder rear sight, graduated to between 1,500 and 1,700 meters (depending upon variation) with fold-down anti-aircraft calipers to help establish the lead for firing at planes. While an interesting contrivance, I have yet to come across an authenticated case of a Japanese soldier shooting down an enemy plane with his Type 99. If any of my readers could furnish me with a verified account, I would appreciate it greatly. In later 99 variants, the bipod was eliminated and the fancy rear sight replaced with a fixed one.
Type 99 receivers were marked with the gun's designation in Japanese characters, as well as with the Imperial chrysanthemum, denoting that the rifle was, in fact, owned by the Emperor and was only "loaned" to the soldier while on active duty. After the war, many Type 38s and Type 99s had their mums ground off by the occupation forces at the request of the Japanese government. Generally speaking, "ground" Arisakas are not as sought-after by collectors as those guns with their mums intact.
As well as a standard infantry model, in both long (31-inch barrel) and short (25½-inch barrel) versions, the Type 99 was produced in a clever takedown Paratrooper version, whereby with the simple unscrewing of a bolt and unthreading the barrel from the receiver, the gun's length could be reduced by half for airborne use. Interestingly enough, takedown Type 99s have been popular with moviemakers who modify them to look like some sort of sophisticated clandestine sniper rifle. Such a Type 99 was used to good effect by Laurence Harvey in "The Manchurian Candidate," for example.
By the war's end some 2½ million Type 99s had been manufactured at arsenals in Japan, Korea and Manchuria, and while they never came close to supplanting the Type 38, they were still effective, reliable arms that were well regarded by their users and respected by their adversaries.
I must admit I didn't come into this shoot-off inexperienced with either arm. I've shot the M1 Garand and Type 99 extensively over the years and had already formed opinions of them prior to going to the range. Our evaluation pieces were a very good, all-original Springfield M1 made in October 1944 and an extremely clean Type 99 manufactured at the Torimatsu Factory, Nagoya Arsenal prior to 1943. It has the wire monopod, bolt cover and ladder-style rear sight with aircraft stadia. The receiver is unground and still retains its Imperial chrysanthemum.
The M1 is a heavy arm that first-time users often find a bit daunting to shoot well. Once the gun's balance and loading and shooting intricacies are worked out, however, it's easy to understand Patton's enthusiasm for the piece. In our evaluation we used Federal 150-grain Nosler ammo. The en bloc clips are easy to load into the rifle, and functioning was perfect throughout the day. Rested 100-yard groups came in at between three and 3½ inches, slightly low. The trigger was a normal two-stage military, tripping at 6 pounds.
Garand sights are a delight, and one can dial them in easily and effectively. Recoil is totally manageable. I particularly like the location of the safety catch. All in all, a class act. For a relatively complicated weapon, it is easy to take down and service. At the risk of telegraphing results, I must maintain that, yes, it was unquestionably the best battle rifle of World War II.
This is not to denigrate the Type 99, however. Being basically a Mauser-style bolt gun that loads with five-round stripper clips, the Type 99 is the equal of just about any rifle of its type used in the war. Early guns — those made before wartime privations caused the Japanese to take shortcuts on manufacturing — are well-made, rugged and totally reliable.
Only slightly longer than the Garand and some 7½ inches shorter than the Type 38 (which also saw use at Tarawa), our "short" 99 balanced well and shouldered nicely. The two-stage trigger broke at a slightly mushy 6 pounds, which is not particularly unpleasant and plenty good enough to provide some decent shooting.
The rear sight, with its peep aperture, works well in conjunction with the tapered, inverted-V front. The safety, which is a knurled knob on the rear of the bolt, is not as user-friendly as that of the Garand. You must use the palm of your hand to turn it clockwise (on) or counterclockwise (off), and that necessitates taking your hand completely away from the trigger/triggerguard. Still, it's not all that difficult to manipulate.
The recoil of the Norma 180-grain 7.7mm SPBT ammo is about like a .303. For the most part, the rifle handled exceedingly well and brought in average 100-yard rested groups of around 3½ inches, slightly low and to the right of the point of aim. I tried shooting the rifle from the monopod, and I give that worthy accessory one star out of ten. There must be a special trick to using it known only to Imperial Japanese soldiers. In my experience, it appears to be so flimsy as to be useless. Also, the bolt cover, while not a bad idea for keeping the action free of mud, dirt and grime, is a bit on the noisy side. (I now understand why they were routinely discarded by veteran soldiers.) The bolt is easily removed from the rifle for cleaning and maintenance by means of a standard Mauser-style side catch.
The Type 99 is a reliable, rugged service rifle, on a par with any of its contemporaries. I like it very much. Still, when pitted against the Garand, it definitely comes out second best — through no inherent fault of its own. It's simply a good example of an older technology being bested by a newer one.
Enjoy articles like this?
Subscribe to the magazine.
Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine